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9/10
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
16 May 2019
Many consider 1935's "Bride of Frankenstein" to be one of those rare instances in which the sequel proved to be better than the original 1931 "Frankenstein," and it certainly took Boris Karloff's Monster as far as he could go as the star, now granted the power of speech and the knowledge of how he came to be: "I love dead, hate living." By far director James Whale's most brilliant decision was to cast the same actress as both Mary Shelley in the prologue and the Bride for the climax, selecting Else Lanchester, actual bride of actor Charles Laughton, and she was delighted: "I do have a rather unusual face!" We begin with a charming sequence depicting a roaring fire around which Mary regales her poet husband Shelley (Douglas Walton) and the erudite Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), England's exulted 'greatest sinner,' with the further adventures of The Monster, who managed to escape the ravages of the fiery windmill by falling into the waters beneath (Jack Pierce's modified makeup design revealing the clamps around the top of his skull). Wet, tired, and just a bit peeved, The Monster takes his anger out on the parents of 'Little Maria' (she drowned at his hands in the original) before wandering off into the night, as the dying Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive back again) is returned home to his waiting bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). It is quickly established that Henry makes a sudden recovery, that his elderly father has expired (making him the new Baron), and that the unexpected arrival of his former mentor Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, replacing Claude Rains) proves that another scientist possesses knowledge of the creation of life, and wishes to collaborate on a new venture. This Monster may have the strength of ten men but he can still be hurt by a bullet, encounters with rampaging villagers leaving him weary and defeated, until the soft sounds of a violin pierce the night air, offering comfort to his lonely existence. A cabin deep in the woods is the home of a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who senses a troubled soul in torment and provides shelter and sustenance to his beleaguered new friend. Whale may have been a confirmed atheist but it's still a touching scene, the hermit thanking the Lord for sending him one similarly afflicted, a tear streaming down The Monster's face as the screen fades to black. In next to no time, Frankenstein's creation has learned a vocabulary of simple terms, things that bring him newfound joy: bread, drink, smoke, wood (he still understandably fears fire). Unfortunately, this idyllic interlude is short lived as two hunters (John Carradine and Frank Terry) decide to 'rescue' the old blind man from the inhuman Monster: "Frankenstein made him out of dead bodies!" Another damaging fire, another friend permanently lost, is it any wonder the poor creature loses all semblance of compassion, until meeting Dr. Pretorius in the crypt of a teenage girl, planting the suggestion that a mate will be the answer to eternal solitude. With Dwight Frye's Karl Glutz aboard as dutiful grave robber ("this is no life for murderers!") Whale proceeds to the most expansive creation scene of the 30s, Kenneth Strickfaden's electrical gadgets back in place, the old watchtower set from "Frankenstein" more imposing than before. Elsa's Bride is truly a beautiful sight to rhapsodize about, her own hair carefully coiffed with a white streak, each scar lovingly crafted by Jack Pierce into a wondrous whole, obviously enchanted by her creator as she follows him and reaches out to his entreaties. It's only when The Monster tries to befriend her that she reacts with abject horror, a multitude of screams followed by a knowing hiss once he determines that "we belong dead." The Monster's heartbreak is achingly real, another masterful performance of body language saying so much without (many) lines, though Boris himself still preferred his 1931 version over this one (he went from ? in 1931 to just 'Karloff' here, even with a fractured hip). As the Bride Elsa Lanchester became a legend in just the last five minutes of the film, very bird-like in her jerky sudden movements, her evil hiss suitably inspired by a protective mother swan. An unsolved mystery is why the Bride, supposedly the new, improved, deluxe model, doesn't survive the explosive finale like her intended does, in fact rendered speechless in the next entry "Son of Frankenstein." Watch for future Oscar winner Walter Brennan in the scene where all the neighbors gather in the home of Frau Neumann (he's the one holding a hatchet, with one line: "poor old Neumann!").
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5/10
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
9 May 2019
Hollywood's first true werewolf movie, 1935's "WereWolf of London" emerged two years after Guy Endore's 1933 novel "The Werewolf of Paris." "The Wolf Man" had been one of the titles proposed for Boris Karloff as early as 1932, with the starring role going not to Boris (currently busy shooting "Bride of Frankenstein") but to relative newcomer Henry Hull, an acclaimed stage performer. It is believed that Jack Pierce's conception later worn by Lon Chaney was devised for Hull, who supposedly balked at wearing heavy makeup, though it must be said that the Satanic look with fangs and pointed ears works quite well if a bit uncomfortable under a coat and hat (more Hyde than Hull). It was actually the actor's studiousness in remembering that the characters must be able to recognize the werewolf as being Wilfred Glendon that prompted the change in design (its howl combined Hull's voice with a real timber wolf). The problems with the film lie in its meandering script, superfluous characters, and director Stuart Walker's leaden pacing, with only a dozen credits on his resume hardly adept at atmosphere, screenwriter John Colton known for soap opera plays like "Rain," his few movie credits concluding with Karloff's "The Invisible Ray." The picture opens promisingly in Tibet, as we meet London botanist Wilfred Glendon (Hull) and his young companion (Clark Williams) searching for the mysterious Mariphasa lumino lupino, a flower that only blooms under the rays of the full moon. A friendly priest (Egon Brecher) warns them to stay clear of the valley ("I've never known a man to return from it") but they forge ahead, Glendon finding a specimen of Mariphasa but also trouble in the hidden form of a human beast that attacks him, biting his arm before a knife drives it off. Immediately cutting away to his home laboratory at a later date, Glendon must play host to a party showing off his carnivorous plants, his lovely wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) introducing him to her childhood sweetheart Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), who seems only too eager to resume their relationship. Of greater importance is the arrival of Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), whose knowledge of the Mariphasa impresses Glendon, who inquires if they had previously met: "in Tibet, once, but only for a moment...in the dark..." It is Yogami who informs the younger botanist about 'werewolfery,' in which the full moon causes a change in those afflicted: "neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both." His ominous warning that he knows of two such cases in London at this time, plus the fact that the werewolf seeks to kill 'the thing it loves best' drives Glendon to distraction, until his own transformation at the half hour mark, impressively broken up in stages by pillars. Wherever his wife Lisa goes with Paul is where Glendon's howling monstrosity ends up, forced to claim a life each night or risk permanent affliction, the Mariphasa offering only a temporary antidote. Footage of high society matrons like Spring Byington seemingly go on forever, and Scotland Yard's scoffing tone is mirrored in the same fashion in "Dracula's Daughter" (Gilbert Emery just as irritating as Lawrence Grant here). A comic interlude featuring competing landladies Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Moncaster and Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Whack provide a little Whalesian Cockney whimsy, too short to do any real damage. Emotional investment from the audience is crucial to the werewolf, and though Lon Chaney's likable everyman supplied that in the 1941 classic Hull's upper crust snootiness thoroughly keeps us at a discreet distance, just as his neglectful duties as husband drives the one he loves into the arms of another man (Colton would use this plot device again for his final film "The Invisible Ray"). The screen's beloved Charlie Chan, Warner Oland replaced an unavailable Bela Lugosi (currently shooting "Mark of the Vampire" at MGM from a Guy Endore script), providing the film's most memorable characterization, a return to his formerly villainous ways but still not ably conveying an adequate supply of menace. On my first viewing as a kid the notion that two werewolves were prowling London escaped me, as Yogami's werewolf claims its lone victim off screen, some 150 miles from the place where Glendon's beast unsuccessfully tried to kill Lisa (managing to avoid the transformation for two nights because he had stolen two Mariphasa blossoms). It's nice that one cast member appeared in both films, J.M. Kerrigan as Evelyn Ankers' father in "The Wolf Man," here as Henry Hull's lab assistant. Depicted as a scientific curiosity rather than a supernatural force, "WereWolf of London" stands alone and neglected in the Laemmle era, its placid treatment of an impassioned subject unique to its outdated time, more Victorian than 20th century. Fortunately, Universal must have felt that a better version yearned to be made, which only took six years to reach fruition.
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9/10
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
9 May 2019
More horror than science fiction, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was an early effort from director Don Siegel (and his own personal favorite), shot in 23 days from March 23 to April 27, 1955. Proving that no makeup or special effects are needed to terrify an audience, Siegel masterfully lays out an effective small town atmosphere, where everyone knows their neighbors, then proceeds to turn that peaceful idyll upside down as the populace inexplicably transform into something cold, unfeeling, and heartless. What could be scarier than the monsters that exist inside each of us, and what results when they are unleashed upon an unsuspecting public? Kevin McCarthy was no stranger to movies, only a half dozen to his credit at the time, but came to relish being remembered as Dr. Miles Bennell, who cuts short a medical conference to return to his office in (fictional) Santa Mira for what he assumed were multiple patients in need of urgent treatment. One by one they cancel their appointments, even Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), after complaining that her uncle wasn't her uncle, despite having the same identical features and memories that he does. Miles is a divorcee, rather uncommon for a 50s feature, and enjoys the opportunity to reignite with old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), but romance cannot take precedence over a sudden call from Jack Belicec (King Donovan) to examine a body on his pool table, seemingly unfinished right down to the lack of fingerprints. Jack's wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) has reason to panic when her husband's hand cut is reproduced on the same hand as the unliving corpse, but it vanishes before night's end. Once Miles has a premonition that Becky's in danger he rushes over to her father's home to discover a replica of her forming in the basement, promptly removing her to prevent a 'peaceful' takeover. In less than a month giant seed pods from another world landed in a farmer's field, able to duplicate any living creature nearby, and now the 'pod people' control the police, politicians, and phone lines of Santa Mira, with only Miles and Becky left to fight for humanity's survival, unable to differentiate between friend or foe. Siegel admitted knowing a great many 'pod people' in the Hollywood studio system, taking things for granted and failing to display a love for life as they drudge from one day to the next. Among the small parts essayed by its extensive cast is that of the meter reader first seen in Miles' basement, as Siegel's assistant Sam Peckinpah played a major role in punching up Daniel Mainwaring's script, adapted from Jack Finney's 1954 serial publication "The Body Snatchers" (various titles floated around during shooting: "They Came from Another World," "Evil in the Night," "World in Danger," "Better Off Dead" and the director's preferred choice "Sleep No More"). Everyone connected with the film and even original author Jack Finney dismissed any political allegory, three remakes so far and countless imitations, and undisputed classic.
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9/10
Aired ten times on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater
5 May 2019
1939's "Son of Frankenstein" was expressly conceived by Universal to meet the demand for new horrors with an 'A' budget and top cast, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi a given, along with Basil Rathbone and the always welcome Lionel Atwill, whose wryly whimsical one armed portrayal of Inspector Krogh was so indelible that Kenneth Mars never had to stretch to spoof it in Mel Brooks' affectionate 1974 "Young Frankenstein." As director Rowland V. Lee was displeased with Willis Cooper's original script, a brutal and too simple rehash of "Bride of Frankenstein," it was thrown out and the actors themselves were encouraged to work out their own characters. This was particularly true in Lugosi's case, as the shepherd with a penchant for grave robbing was only conceived after Cooper's outline was discarded. Ygor emerged as Bela's acting masterpiece, yes even better than his legendary Dracula, his voice an unrecognizable rasp, effectively playing against aristocratic type in essaying a peasant rogue who was hanged for his crimes and pronounced dead, only to magically return to life to occupy the ruins of the Frankenstein laboratory, albeit with a broken neck. Interesting that the cliché of the hunchback assistant Igor came from this film, rather than Dwight Frye's Fritz in the 1931 original, especially since Ygor's humped back is barely noticeable, the actor modifying his gait to use his entire body to compensate for the damaged neck. Basil Rathbone carries the entire picture on his capable shoulders as Wolf von Frankenstein, not an easy task with so many scene stealers at their best around him, the exquisite red headed beauty Josephine Hutchinson a breath of fresh air as wife Elsa (the less said about son Peter the better, played by Donnie Dunagan). Wolf's arrival in the mountain village of Frankenstein is the cause for great consternation, and Inspector Krogh is the bearer of unhappy news about a 'murdering ghost' having dispatched six prominent members of the council. Once Wolf explores the remnants of his father's lab we're introduced to Ygor, rapping on his neck to prove that it requires no medical attention before leading the late Baron's son through a hidden corridor to finally meet his comatose 'brother' The Monster (Ygor: "but his mother was light-ening!"). We see a great deal of Karloff's Monster during this middle portion, unfortunately lying on a slab the whole time (as if auditioning for the Glenn Strange version!), but scientific curiosity and the desire to vindicate his father brings out the eager scientist in Wolf, who discovers that it was cosmic rays that helped bring The Monster to vibrant indestructible life (bullets clearly hurt the poor creature before, yet here he has two lodged in his heart). Initially believing he has failed, Wolf is stunned to be greeted by a walking, inquisitive Monster, and here Karloff is allowed to shine with superb aplomb, able to convey his great strength when grabbing the reluctant Wolf, who until now has never experienced cold fear in his entire life. Comparing his hideous visage with Wolf's handsome countenance before a mirror proves another inspired touch, growing agitated by the realization of his facial ugliness, until Ygor's arrival miraculously calms him down, Wolf realizing how much The Monster loves and obeys his 'dead' friend ("this is place of the dead, we're all dead here"). What no one knows is that Ygor has been using The Monster to kill off every juror who sentenced him to death, enjoying a perfect alibi by playing his horn as each murder is committed, in every case a severe bruise found at the base of the brain, the hearts of the victims having burst. From here Karloff's creature is essentially just a mindless tool of vengeance, until discovering Ygor's dead body in the lab, shot dead by Wolf in self defense, his mourning the blood on his hand sounded by a heartrending cry that echoes throughout the building, so awesome that the studio would reuse it in picture after picture over many years, including the climax of this one involving the boiling hot sulfur pit (when Glenn Strange's Monster tosses J. Carrol Naish's Daniel to his death in "House of Frankenstein" we hear Karloff on the soundtrack). The most durable aspect of the rushed post production was the accomplished music score composed by Frank Skinner, also heard in countless Universal features well into the 1950s (Karloff's "The Black Castle"). In the fifth of their eight films together, Lugosi and Karloff enjoyed their most harmonious working relationship this time, as both men experienced the newfound joys of fatherhood in 1938, Boris' daughter Sara Jane actually born on his 51st birthday, November 23 (Lionel Atwill would be retained for every forthcoming sequel, and Bela would reprise Ygor in the next entry "The Ghost of Frankenstein"). In providing not only The Monster's makeup but also Ygor's broken neck and rotted teeth Jack Pierce managed to outdo himself, to the delight of multiple female fans who requested passes to see Bela and Boris in full regalia. Disappointed that his beloved Monster was no longer the sympathetic creation 'more sinned against than sinning,' Karloff would never again play his signature role in a feature film, though he would don the makeup for a celebrity baseball game in 1940, an unused sequence intended for Danny Kaye's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in 1947, and a brief appearance in the 1962 Halloween episode of television's ROUTE 66 "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing." Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder may have dedicated "Young Frankenstein" to James Whale, but "Son of Frankenstein" is clearly the blueprint for their affectionate parody, and shot in black and white.
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The H-Man (1958)
7/10
Fairly adult Toho terror
2 May 2019
1958's "The H-Man" was not a kaiju eiga from Toho but a mixture of gangsters, science fiction and horror that shows how director Ishiro Honda could produce something unsettling and genuinely scary. An arresting rain drenched opening in which a thief is unable to escape an unseen menace that leaves only his empty clothes behind moves on to a police investigation into a narcotics ring using a popular nightclub as a front. The primary singer just happens to be the main squeeze of the missing thief, whose witness of a second gangster dissolving in the rain inspires a scientist (Kenji Sahara) to confirm a story about a ghost ship that passed through radioactive fallout from the H bomb, producing a liquid creature that devours human beings to survive (the original Japanese title translated as "Beauty and the Liquid People"). Whether aboard the ship's shadowy corridors or underneath the streets of Tokyo there's much to admire, as Eiji Tsuburaya delighted in the horrifying deaths, simply using human shaped balloons properly deflated to show the victim dissolving on screen, more effective than "The Blob," where we never actually saw anyone swallowed by the monster. A special compound was used for the liquid monster, tilted sets built so that technicians could just pour it down a wall for the desired effect. Another notable sequence shows how a frog can melt into a liquid creature, bubbling up in disquieting fashion, the stuff of childhood nightmares for those who saw it at the time. Toho would do more items of a similar nature, "Secret of the Telegian," "The Human Vapor," and "Dagora the Space Monster," all mixing gangsters and monsters, but Honda's horror masterpiece would be 1963's "Matango."
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6/10
All the usual cliches were born here in 1950
1 May 2019
"Rocketship X-M" was an 18 day shoot in February and March 1950 by producer Robert L. Lippert to cash in on George Pal's still unfinished "Destination Moon." A familiar name took on writing and directing, Kurt Neumann, whose career kicked off at Universal with 1933's "Secret of the Blue Room," but his last few efforts encompassed "She Devil," "Kronos," and "The Fly," released a month before his premature death at age 50. His not so original idea remained intact, the first manned space flight to the Moon, but to avoid legal difficulties changed the landing site to Mars (the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo also played a major role in its development). Where "Destination Moon" was filmed in color and built a studio depiction of the lunar surface, this one took the easy way out by location shooting at California's Red Rock Canyon, setting the template for future endeavors of outer space adventures, either encountering monsters or lost civilizations. The story itself is perfunctory, five scientists set to spend 48 hours headed to the moon, only to be redirected by fuel problems and a meteor shower (the very first depicted on screen). They take off at 16 minutes, and only reach Mars at 50, a mere 17 minutes to ascertain that life on the Red Planet was obliterated by atomic war, the populace reduced to primitive cave people using stones and clubs. What makes the picture worth watching is the yeoman work by an exceptional cast, top billing Lloyd Bridges, already a decade of mostly small roles behind him, just beginning to be noticed (within two years he would co-star opposite Lon Chaney in "High Noon," earlier working together in "Strange Confession" and "16 Fathoms Deep"). Another Universal regular, Noah Beery Jr., provided better comedy relief than the embarrassing Dick Wesson, the actual newcomer Hugh O'Brian, only five years away from becoming television's Wyatt Earp, while the already cliched researcher was essayed by John Emery, the decade's first female astronaut (Osa Massen) handled with more care than expected (her accurate calculations about the fuel are ignored by Emery, resulting in disaster). Low budget outfits like Monogram quickly snapped up the rocket interior and costumes for "Flight to Mars," which also borrowed Earth scientist Morris Ankrum to play the Martian leader instead (this marked the actor's debut in the genre he would be best remembered for). Lippert Pictures was pretty much a Poverty Row outfit, turning out new product until 1955 as well as redistributing older titles, Lippert himself enjoying a lucrative deal with Fox to continue doing pictures in Britain by the 60s. "Destination Moon" may have been first into production but "Rocketship X-M" undoubtedly made more money (after all, its budget was $500,000 lower!) and proved far more influential over the years than its visually imposing yet dramatically limp and less fanciful counterpart.
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Red Tomahawk (1967)
4/10
A.C. Lyles Western number 9
1 May 2019
1966's "Red Tomahawk" was the ninth entry in a series of 13 Paramount 'B' Westerns courtesy producer A.C. Lyles from 1963 to 1967, designed to meet huge demand in Europe but quick playoff in the US, featuring a multitude of familiar players in need of a decent paycheck. Several were shot back to back, usually two weeks apiece, which is why this attempted reunion between top billed Howard Keel and Betty Hutton from "Annie Get Your Gun" did not come to fruition, Betty's inability to keep up the swift pace resulting in the casting of Joan Caulfield instead. Keel's Captain Tom York is a government agent in 1876 South Dakota, the first to discover the massacre of Custer's cavalry at Little Big Horn by Sitting Bull's Sioux warriors, making his way to nearby Deadwood to message authorities about his findings. With the telegraph lines down and the townspeople unusually hostile, York only has two allies to help him recover a pair of Gatling guns to help the army defeat the insurrection. It's nice to see Scott Brady as a good guy for a change, joined by one time only Lyles veteran Broderick Crawford and saloon girl Joan Caulfield, still an eyeful in one of her few movie roles (only six after 1951) amid much television work. Among the townsmen there are really no standouts, Wendell Corey appears to be the main villain before getting killed off in ten minutes, Richard Arlen's telegrapher has little to do, Donald Barry's deserter and Roy Jenson's prospector in and out rather quickly. Tom Drake's character acts like a preacher and aids Captain York, and Ben Cooper ("Johnny Guitar") shows up at the end for the action packed climax. The rampaging Indians are granted no personality so real tension is sadly lacking, but it does seem to contain more battles than other Lyles oaters. Joan Caulfield would return for the producer's last Paramount Western "Buckskin," her natural beauty and believability making more of the too small part of a widow weary of the violence that claimed the lives of her husband and child. This was the one entry that seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth after its theatrical run, few TV screenings and no video release, but all 13 are easily available for dedicated film buffs.
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The Mad Ghoul (1943)
8/10
George Zucco's finest hour
27 April 2019
1943's "The Mad Ghoul" remains a sadly neglected entry during a year in which horror was in short supply at Universal, positioned at the bottom of a double bill with Lon Chaney's "Son of Dracula." Lionel Atwill had scored as mad scientists in both "Man Made Monster" and "The Mad Doctor of Market Street," but since then only John Carradine carried on the tradition with "Captive Wild Woman," spawning two sequels in its wake, "Jungle Woman" and "The Jungle Captive." On just this one occasion George Zucco received the call to star as Dr. Alfred Morris, whose experiments result in tragedy as delusions of unrequited love are not reciprocated. Dr. Morris is teaching classes at University City, selecting skilled surgeon Ted Allison (David Bruce) to become his prize pupil, after discovering the secret behind the Mayan technique of human sacrifice, cutting out the hearts of living donors not to appease their gods but to restore life to victims of a deadly gas that leaves the subject in a fearful state of 'death in life,' feted to die without treatment. The doctor has been able to recreate the gas and indoctrinated a monkey as a guinea pig, requiring Ted to perform a cardiectomy on another monkey for the heart substance, when mixed with certain herbs serving as a cure for the zombie-like condition. The little creature seems totally unaffected by its ordeal and all goes well, Dr. Morris also rejoicing in Ted's relationship with concert singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers), as he secretly covets the young lovely for himself. Once Morris becomes aware of Ted's intention to marry Isobel he sets a trap for his naïve assistant, who becomes a human victim of the Mayan gas, a slave to the will of his master. Unfortunately, the happy go lucky monkey soon falls back into his living death state, the cure merely a temporary one, too late for Dr. Morris to make amends so he and Ted follow Isobel's singing tour from town to town, every relapse requiring a desecration of the recently interred for heart substance. More grim than the usual Ben Pivar production, the extensive gruesomeness is kept off screen, but as one caretaker supplies a fresh heart, so too does a (too) clever reporter (Robert Armstrong) pretending to be a corpse lying in a coffin, his accurate hunch proving to be a fatal one. George Zucco only received star billing at Poverty Row's PRC in titles like "The Mad Monster," "Dead Men Walk," "The Black Raven," "Fog Island," and "The Flying Serpent," so to essay a more nuanced villain at Universal was a nice change, though he does indulge his bulging eyes toward the end of the film when confessing his indiscretion to Ted (we reveled in Atwill's madness but never felt sympathy for him). His previous mad scientists at Paramount ("The Monster and the Girl") or Fox ("Dr. Renault's Secret") were smaller roles rather than the lead, an established supporting fixture at Universal in "The Mummy's Hand," "Dark Streets of Cairo," "The Mummy's Tomb," "The Mummy's Ghost," and "House of Frankenstein," so at least here he's allowed to effortlessly carry a star vehicle for a major studio. Top billed David Bruce only had one other genre credit opposite Lon Chaney in "Calling Dr. Death,," wearing a close facsimile of Boris Karloff's makeup as Ardath Bey in "The Mummy," later worn by Chaney himself in "Man Made Monster," a Jack Pierce application meant to show the character's gradual disintegration into a dessicated corpse.
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6/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
9 April 2019
"The Monster of Piedras Blancas" was an independent production from Jack Kevan, former makeup artist at Universal, responsible for designing and building the Gill Man from "Creature from the Black Lagoon," the Xenomorph from "It Came from Outer Space," the Metaluna Mutant of "This Island Earth," "The Mole People," and other Bud Westmore triumphs. Recently cast off by the studio in an attempt to downsize, Kevan decided to produce his own films, and did two more after this one, "The 7th Commandment" and "The Street Is My Beat," but "Piedras Blancas" is the only picture people remember (director Irvin Berwick had worked as dialogue coach at Universal, which helped contribute employees and props in keeping the budget low at $29,000). Higher billing went to Universal veterans Les Tremayne ("The Monolith Monsters") and John Harmon ("The Black Doll," "The Missing Guest," "Mystery of the White Room," "Buck Rogers"), but the real stars were Jeanne Carmen ("The Devil's Hand") and Don Sullivan ("Teenage Zombies," "The Giant Gila Monster") as the ingenues, she the daughter of Harmon's belligerent lighthouse keeper, he the assistant of Tremayne's small town physician. Harmon's Sturges is pegged straight away as knowing more about what's going on, but offers no explanation about his devotion to the reptilian monster, supposedly born on the bottom of the sea, its ability to withstand tremendous pressure making it impregnable to bullets. All we really know is that the creature has been content to feed on Sturges' meat scraps until they run out, after which he does what any concerned consumer would do, heads off to the meat market to devour the owner! One gruesome touch finds the monster able to guillotine the heads off its victims, strolling out of a meat locker with one as an obvious trophy (this doesn't coincide with the Mole Man claws, designed for digging). Pinup model Jeanne Carmen shows off her awesome assets not once but twice, skinny dipping to the onlooking monster's apparent delight (attracted by sense of smell), so much so that he later can't resist spying on her undressing before pouncing on the girl in her bedroom. The monster's head is a close facsimile of the Gill Man, adding pointed horns and a mean sneer, the feet faithfully reproduced from the mutants of "This Island Earth," a terrific look that sadly only allowed for awkward movement. The script itself may be made up of leftovers too but at least the filmmakers were able to do a little more than the usual AIP or Allied Artists release. Authentic on location shooting in March 1958 took place at the Point Conception lighthouse near Lompoc, while the small town was really Cayucos, 30 miles south of the actual Piedras Blancas (meaning 'white stones'). Distribution was spotty but a 'Shock Award Winner' endorsement from Famous Monsters of Filmland supposedly earned editor Forrest J. Ackerman some angry letters from disgruntled readers.
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4/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
9 April 2019
1957's "The Electronic Monster" was a British programmer that didn't cross the Atlantic for three years (Columbia double billed it with either William Castle's "13 Ghosts" or Toho's "Battle in Outer Space"), its more accurate original title "Escapement" changed for something signifying more horror than science fiction (the shooting titles were "Zex, the Electronic Fiend," and "The Dream Machine"). It actually plays out as a murder mystery, from the pen of Charles Eric Maine (The Atomic Man"), under the direction of journeyman Montgomery Tully ("Invisible Creature," "Fog for A Killer," "The Terrornauts"), from the same Anglo Amalgamated company that would become infamous for color fright fests "Horrors of the Black Museum," Circus of Horrors," and "Peeping Tom." This black and white quickie can't help but pale in comparison to those three, using the typical format of importing Hollywood actors to play the leads, in this case Rod Cameron ("The Monster and the Girl") and Mary Murphy ("The Mad Magician"), not a surprise since both had already worked in England before (Cameron in "Passport to Treason," Murphy in "Finger of Guilt"). Cameron's rugged countenance (well suited to Westerns) seems out of place as a two fisted insurance investigator looking into the sudden death (suicide or murder) of a star actor who had just left a clinic near Cannes that specializes in relaxing patients with dream therapy as a form of 'escape from reality.' Once he starts making inquiries about the clinic we pretty much stay put, as the police surgeon supplies his own verdict on cause of death (cerebral thrombosis) as opposed to the actual cause, a short circuit of the brain due to a severe dose of brainwashing. The primary villain is quickly revealed to be the clinic owner (Peter Illing), his bizarre likeness shown in the electronically induced dreams (I could have done without the diaper-clad lads prancing about), apparently a former Nazi who is confident that the well paid local authorities won't bother him. A decent enough view if somewhat obvious, though some of the French accents render dialogue unintelligible.
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Mothra (1961)
7/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
7 April 2019
1961's "Mothra" was Toho's first kaiju eiga of the decade and first since the drab black and white "VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE" in 1958, wreaking havoc in much the same way as her predecessors, but different from Godzilla or Rodan in that she is a god to her island dwelling people, remaining dormant so long as there is peace; unfortunately, one unscrupulous businessman journeys to this isolated paradise, the site of nuclear testing, for the purpose of capturing an incredible find, twin fairies standing 12 inches tall, intent on earning a fortune by exploiting their unique singing ability. What he soon learns is that not only are the girls tiny priestesses of their humble god, their song is actually a telepathic prayer that summons Mothra to their rescue. The human drama effortlessly carries the film, scientists joined by a dogged reporter in exploring the forbidden island, our first glimpse of the colossal egg at 21 minutes, hatching into a giant caterpillar at 43 minutes, moving inexorably toward Tokyo and certain destruction left in its wake. The military think they've scored a victory over Mothra but it's just temporary, as the creature spins a cocoon from which it emerges as the prettiest darn moth you're likely to see (the bombardment of heat rays merely speeding up the process), its wingspan producing high velocity damage similar to Rodan. 'Rolisica' is a stand in for the US, the climax in 'New Kirk City' set in motion by a quasi religious ceremony with the Mothra symbol laid out on an airfield, the fairies safely on their way back to the island (Mothra later appears in "Godzilla vs. the Thing," "Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster," "Godzilla vs. THE Sea Monster," and "Destroy All Monsters"). Real life twins Yumi and Emi Ito were cast as the tiny princesses, an actual singing duo known internationally as The Peanuts, their career lasting into the 1970s. It was simply a matter of time before director Ishiro Honda would alter the established formula by coming up with a monster as the hero, and Mothra is hands down the second most popular kaiju in Toho history, more personality than Rodan or Varan, and it must be stated that the scenes of destruction are as vast and comprehensive as Eiji Tsuburaya could make them (some even shot for nighttime), including one amazing aerial shot of the caterpillar making its way across land.
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Black Sunday (1960)
8/10
The masterful Mario Bava
7 April 2019
Mario Bava's 1960 "Black Sunday" virtually invented Italian Gothic, something new and exciting in gruesome details, adult anxieties, and fog drenched black and white atmosphere. The key to making it work was finding an actress whose beauty could convey equal portions of innocence and the allure of evil, so that even a god fearing man might hesitate when faced with an eternity of sinful pleasures. Raven haired temptress Barbara Steele was a completely unknown British model just making inroads in Hollywood, vehicles lined up opposite Elvis Presley ("Flaming Star") and Vincent Price ("Pit and the Pendulum"), who chose to seek her fortunes in Rome in a series of Gothics that continued through the late 60s. Witchcraft in 1860 Moldavia finds the forces of darkness freely prowling the night on Black Sunday, as devil worshipping Princess Asa seeks to regain human form by switching places with modern descendant Katia, aided by her undead lover Javuto. The opening scene sets quite a dreadful tone for audiences unaccustomed to seeing a beautiful woman branded with the mark of Satan, the hissing sound burning into her soft flesh, followed by a spiked mask pounded into her lovely face, the blood literally pouring through the eye sockets as the mallet does its dirty work. The removal of a crucifix atop her crypt, coupled with life giving drops of blood donated by an unfortunate doctor, means danger for Katia's family lurking in every hidden passageway. Instead of a stake through the heart, evil is cleansed by spikes through the eyes, again raising the bar for the squeamish as we had already seen Asa's empty sockets instantly sprout crawling vermin at the removal of the spiked mask. Future Mario Bava entries would see more childhood fears of the dark swept aside for more adult themes of an evil that never dies, from Boris Karloff's life draining patriarch in "Black Sabbath," to the color palette of death depicted by "Blood and Black Lace," to the science fiction tropes disguising more traditional Gothic flavoring in "Planet of the Vampires."
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2/10
Yes folks, it's that bad
4 April 2019
AIP's alleged science fiction comedy "Invasion of the Star Creatures" was the one and only screenplay delivered by Roger Corman regular Jonathan Haze ("The Little Shop of Horrors"), from his own story "Monsters from Nicholson Mesa" (either a jab at AIP founder James H. Nicholson or an affectionate nod to fellow actor Jack). Fort Nicholson is where two bird brained privates are stationed, Philbrick and Penn (Bob Ball and Frankie Ray), assigned a top secret mission to examine a large cavern (Bronson Canyon again) created by a recent nuclear explosion. To their surprise, the rest of the platoon are captured by leotard clad 'Vege-Men' who serve a pair of statuesque alien scientists, Puna and Tanga (blonde Gloria Victor and brunette Dolores Reed), in a plot to conquer the earth. What might have worked as a satire of Corman-style 50s filmmaking (1976's "Hollywood Boulevard" did as much the next decade) becomes a very painful slog through subpar Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall shenanigans under the leaden direction of actor Bruno Ve Sota, whose previous works totaled three features, John Carradine's "Female Jungle," 1955's "Dementia" (seen in the movie theater in "The Blob"), and Ed Nelson's "The Brain Eaters" (unsurprisingly, he never directed again). The gags just aren't there, the slapstick fairly obvious, and only an occasional line produces something approaching a giggle ("man, if that's a peace pipe I'd hate to go to war!"). Bob Ball continued working in television for several decades, while Frankie Ray did little acting afterwards, scripting several notable early efforts from producer Charles Band (as Frank Ray Perilli), such as "Mansion of the Doomed," "Cinderella" (both directed by actor Michael Pataki), "Dracula's Dog," "Laserblast" "End of the World" (Christopher Lee), and the John Carradine video "The Best of Sex and Violence." Ray's impersonations of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi are not the best but they come off as classic in this item. The bountiful babes aren't on screen as much as one would like but their presence, and subsequent seduction, almost guarantees cult status, bottom billed theatrically in 1962 with "The Brain That Wouldn't Die." The longer you stay with it, the more you wish it had been Jonathan Haze as Philbrick and Dick Miller as Penn, undoubtedly a more interesting view if not a better one.
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2/10
Edgar G. Ulmer's worst film
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Edgar G. Ulmer's 1959 "The Amazing Transparent Man" stars Western heavy Douglas Kennedy ("Invaders from Mars," "The Alligator People," "Flight of the Lost Balloon") in the lead, top billing going to leggy beauty Marguerite Chapman ("Flight to Mars"). Shot under the working title "The Invisible Intruder," this new moniker doesn't exactly offer a plethora of thrills, essentially a drab crime drama with the added gimmick of invisibility. Kennedy plays a captured safecracker (named Faust, believe it or not) sprung from prison by a megalomaniac who seeks to profit by creating an invisible army, thanks to the invention of a dying scientist whose only interest is the safety of his imperiled daughter (apparently everyone under his thumb acts out of concern for their child). Incredibly, the villain only wants the transparent crook to steal radioactive elements for experimentation, but his second time out decides on a change of plans, an old fashioned bank robbery being a cinch. His unexpected reappearance and disappearance produces guffaws, forced to shoot his way out for a desperate getaway with only one lousy bag of greenbacks. The bad guys all perish in supremely underwhelming fashion, the picture already half over before the novelty of invisibility is actually used. The filming is rushed and special effects nonexistent, truly nothing for director Ulmer to display any flashes of talent, even at a measly 58 minutes (screenwriter Jack Lewis went on to author another Robert Clarke picture, "Secret File: Hollywood," plus Marshall Thompson's "A Yank in Viet-Nam"). One of the security guards who don't see a thing during the first theft is played by Pat Cranshaw, who graduated from the low budget likes of Larry Buchanan to become a ubiquitous comic presence for decades on television.
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3/10
Weakest screen version of "The Hands of Orlac"
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
1960's "Hands of a Stranger," an independent and uncredited remake of the 1924 German silent "The Hands of Orlac," sat on the shelf for two years before Allied Artists picked it up for a double bill with Richard Basehart's "Hitler." Writer/producer/director Newton Arnold worked as assistant director on major Hollywood features from 1967's "In the Heat of the Night" until his 2000 death, but never wrote another film and directed just two more, 1965's Philippine "Blood Thirst" and 1988's action title "Bloodsport." It's doubtful when shooting began (September 13 1960, first as "Hands of Terror," then "The Answer!") that Arnold had even been aware that another remake using original title "The Hands of Orlac" had finished just months earlier, filmed in France and benefitting from star performers like Mel Ferrer, Christopher Lee, and Donald Pleasence. What chance would a micro budgeted entry have against those odds? (Maurice Renard's 1920 novel is conspicuously absent from the credits for this screen version). The possibilities were there for a decent thriller, but the script spends the first half on exposition, the second half on the aftermath, the actors and characterizations so deadly earnest that it rings hollow, almost comical, director Arnold using closeups to overemphasize even the most mundane exchanges. The opening sequence depicts the shooting death of an unidentified man by unknown assailants (never caught), Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather) offhandedly noting to investigator Syms (Larry Haddon) that the deceased's hands were so powerful that they had to be pried from the lamppost. Only two hours pass before an accident victim arrives at the hospital, acclaimed pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton), his cherished hands so mangled that they no longer even resemble hands. Without the consent of Vernon's sister Dina (Joan Harvey), the doctor calls in three associates to aid in an illegal operation to transfer the strong hands of the murdered man to the musician, in the hope that talent will out and he can resume his career. Dina initially questions Dr. Harding's motives but soon falls in love with him, the procedure a success but the 'sensitive artist' prefers to wallow in self pity, venturing out to torment and/or kill imagined enemies rather than create beautiful music. His former girlfriend goes up in flames from a fallen candle, but the most shocking death comes when a 10 year old boy has his hands crushed together before receiving a cracked skull during an impromptu recital. Most of the picture focuses on the doctor, not the love stricken madman expertly played by Peter Lorre in Hollywood's 1935 adaptation "Mad Love" (later Sir Donald Wolfit in "The Hands of Orlac"), Paul Lukather's medico so doggedly determined that he almost comes off as menacing. James Stapleton literally gives a one note performance, unsympathetic even before the accident, the audience left to wonder just who those amputated hands belonged to, not identified as a murderer, thereby robbing the story of a crucial plot point that would more easily explain the aberrant behavior of the protagonist. Small roles are played by fading starlet Irish McCalla, from SHEENA QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE and "She Demons," and up and coming Sally Kellerman, her lone scene ending in tragedy.
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4/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
4 April 2019
1963's "The Blancheville Monster," filmed in Spain by Italian director Alberto De Martino, turns out to be just a routine black and white Poe pastiche. American International's TV branch would buy up foreign titles from Europe (Britain, Italy and Spain in particular) and Japan (Daiei's Gamera series) before dubbing and going straight to television; who knows if any of them would be remembered today had the studio not decided to cut down production expenses in the US by furnishing features already completed and no doubt cheaper to purchase (their color package lacked the lucrative Poe series, so Samuel Z. Arkoff substituted Larry Buchanan's infamous octet of Azaleas, using scripts already conceived, and even previously filmed). The generic original title "Horror" notwithstanding, "Blancheville" is a decidedly dreary story without a satisfying payoff, the pretty heiress to the De Blancheville estate in Northern France returning to celebrate her upcoming birthday, only to receive shocking news from her brother (Gerard Tichy, "Face of Terror," "Hatchet for the Honeymoon") that their supposedly deceased father, disfigured in a fire, is not only alive but has escaped his tower prison in an attempt to prevent his daughter from instigating family termination by turning 21. The local doctor comes under suspicion as well, carrying a volume on hypnotism in his medical kit, while the menacing housekeeper (Helga Line) has been brandishing a possibly lethal syringe from mysterious bottles. The arresting climax finds our cataleptic heroine being buried alive, the camera showing her perspective from inside the coffin, watching the mourners through a glass opening but unable to move. Christopher Lee or Barbara Steele might have resuscitated this dead horse but they are sadly absent, drawn out in tedious dialogue exchanges with very little atmosphere but some titillation provided by diaphanous gowns, both blondes interchangeable (think "House of Usher" without Vincent Price, or even Del Tenney's "The Curse of the Living Corpse"). Helga Line went on to become one of Europe's most prominent femme fatales, letting her hair down (often completely nude) in well known items like "Nightmare Castle," "Horror Express," "Horror Rises from the Tomb," "The Vampires Night Orgy," "The Dracula Saga," "The Mummy's Revenge," "The Lorelei's Grasp," and "Black Candles."
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9/10
Anton Diffring's greatest vehicle
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The second of Anglo Amalgamated's 'Sadean Trilogy' (between Arthur Crabtree's "Horrors of the Black Museum" and Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom"), 1960's "Circus of Horrors" was designed by screenwriter George Baxt and director Sidney Hayers to deliver 'tits and blood' in equal measure. Genuinely pushing the envelope further than even the critically despised Hammer Films, there was a shocking sexual fascination surrounding facial disfigurement, with the central protagonist a brilliant plastic surgeon whose unorthodox yet undeniably successful techniques, coupled with a murder rap, force him to flee England for France. Anton Diffring, the star of Hammer's "The Man Who Could Cheat Death" the year before, again earns top honors as the ice cool Dr. Rossiter, taking the alias Bernard Schuler overseas, accompanied by his lover Angela (Jane Hylton) and her brother Martin (Kenneth Griffith). Little Nicole Vanet (Carla Challoner) bears the facial scars of a wartime bomb, her father (Donald Pleasence) the owner of a poor circus unable to afford to even feed the animals. Vanet promises 'anything and everything' to Schuler if he succeeds in making Nicole beautiful again, and instantly signs over his circus once the operation does exactly that. The happy aftermath is short lived however, as a drunken Vanet is crushed to death by his dancing bear (requiring all his acting skill to be convincingly killed by an empty bearskin). In failing to act at a critical moment Schuler now has a second murder on his conscience but has no intention of stopping there, adding a touch of great beauty to the big top in transforming well endowed prostitutes and murderers into star attractions for his circus. The passage of ten years and the 'Jinx Circus' has garnered a notorious reputation for sudden accidents, usually when the victim in question decides to leave Schuler's employ, poor meek Martin the perpetrator so that Schuler avoids bloodshed. There is indeed plenty of bloodshed, as a knife throwing act proves a genuine pain in the neck for Magda Von Meck (Vanda Hudson), allowing her friend Melina (Yvonne Romain) to replace her in Schuler's bed (acid burn scars no problem for his confident skills). By now the authorities are on to him, and even the investigator has no qualms in making love to the women he questions about their role in the circus (all the easier to spot tell tale surgical marks), quite a remarkable eye opener for color television viewers. With a veritable parade of gorgeous and nearly nude women this has long provided sex education for teen males who caught it at the right age, still potent today. Anton Diffring's exuberance effortlessly carries the film, making one wish he'd enjoyed more starring opportunities, while Donald Pleasence would continue to add to his growing horror resume until becoming firmly identified by 1978's "Halloween." Director Sidney Hayers earned plaudits for 1962's "Burn Witch Burn," before a pair of lesser thrillers from the early 70s made the rounds, "Assault" (Suzy Kendall) and "Inn of the Frightened People" (Joan Collins), admirably maintaining a breakneck pace that simply rolls over incongruous details (the absolute worst gorilla suit ever shot) until the finale brings closure to at least one Rossiter victim. Yvonne Romain and Yvonne Monlaur both brought their considerable charms to some of Hammer's finest of the period, Romain in "The Curse of the Werewolf," "Night Creatures," and "The Brigand of Kandahar," Monlaur in "The Brides of Dracula" and "The Terror of the Tongs" (Jane Hylton had already completed "The Manster" in Japan opposite real life husband Peter Dyneley). It's no surprise to find the unseen hand of Herman Cohen involved, so impressed with the Billy Smart Circus that he used it again in his Joan Crawford vehicle "Berserk," never before had the big top provided the backdrop for a horror film (it would be a few more decades before clowns became a symbol for terror).
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5/10
The birth of Spaghetti sci fi in color
4 April 2019
1960's "Assignment: Outer Space" marked the solo debut for Italian director Antonio Margheriti, who generally used the Americanized alias 'Anthony M. Dawson' on all his titles, science fiction efforts like "Battle of the Worlds" (Claude Rains), "The Wild Wild Planet," "The War of the Planets," "Planet on the Prowl," and "Snow Devils," moving on to Gothics like "Horror Castle" (Christopher Lee), "Castle of Blood" (Barbara Steele), "The Long Hair of Death" (Steele again), and "Web of the Spider," plus "Lightning Bolt," "The Young, the Evil and the Savage" (Michael Rennie), "Mr. Superinvisible," "Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye" (Anton Diffring), "Killer Fish," "Cannibals in the Streets" (John Saxon), "Yor the Hunter from the Future," and "Alien from the Deep." Originally titled "Space-Men" and distributed by AIP in the US (double billed with "The Phantom Planet"), Italy's debut in the space opera sweepstakes was shooting concurrently with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (at the neighboring studio), and set in the year 2116, when travel to orbiting space stations has been normal procedure for years (a nod toward STAR TREK). The unwelcome arrival of big shot reporter Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter) causes consternation for one station commander, despite saving the life of a fellow astronaut while losing 500 gallons of hydrogen fuel in the process, and since that life belonged to his sweetheart the expected love triangle results. Of greater import comes news of a runaway spaceship generating enough power to destroy the earth, missiles unable to penetrate its intense heat to stop it so human volunteers must risk their lives in an attempt to sabotage the computer from inside (1958's "The Lost Missile" featured a similar crisis, completely earthbound). The special effects are varied but not that bad for a low budget (missions to both Mars and Venus compensate, apart from that shot of a 1956 Chevy blowing up), the color photography wasted on cramped sets that actually look black and white. Top billed Rik Van Nutter only made a handful of films, but remains best known as CIA agent Felix Leiter in the 1965 James Bond thriller "Thunderball" (he previously appeared with Christopher Lee in "Uncle Was a Vampire," and was married to actress Anita Ekberg for 12 years). Easily the standout performer is Archie Savage, an African American dancer and choreographer from Norfolk, Virginia, whose white hair and easy going countenance contrasts with the rather drab cast of characters, his dependable pilot able to navigate through turmoil without and within. The same futuristic structure would again be used for Margheriti's next epic "Battle of the Worlds," bringing in no less a star than Claude Rains to save the world from another disaster.
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5/10
Mantan Moreland takes charge of the gang
4 April 2019
"King of the Zombies" was a 1941 Monogram entry that almost became Bela Lugosi's first starring vehicle there before switching over to "Invisible Ghost." The walking dead had recently made a comeback in the Bob Hope Paramount vehicle "The Ghost Breakers," with Noble Johnson as a very effective zombie, at this time still the traditional voodoo variety that became passe once George Romero changed the rules. The role of Viennese scientist Dr. Miklos Sangre was announced for Lugosi two months before production started in March 1941, but he was already busy shooting "The Phantom Killer" (released as "Invisible Ghost") so Monogram made an unsuccessful pitch for Peter Lorre before settling for Henry Victor, whose claim to genre fame rested with Tod Browning's 1932 "Freaks" (as the strongman Hercules). Nominal lead John Archer ("Bowery at Midnight," "Destination Moon," "She Devil") was listed fifth in the credits, third billing going to the actual lead Mantan Moreland, in the same comic relief part he would later essay in the bayou remake "Revenge of the Zombies," which cast John Carradine as the zombie master. Set on an island in the Caribbean, where Admiral Wainwright (Guy Usher) had disappeared only a week earlier, a German radio broadcast luring Archer's Bill Summers, Moreland's Jeff Jackson, and Dick Purcell's top billed Irish pilot James McCarthy to a crash landing in its dense jungle. Jeff regains consciousness right next to a tombstone, the cemetery close to Dr. Sangre's home, his unexpected visitors meeting his niece (Joan Woodbury) and her aunt (his wife), who walks with wide staring eyes and seemingly no will of her own. Fortunately the kitchen is the place to be, with sassy cook Samantha (Marguerite Whitten) giving Jeff the lowdown on the night creeping zombies, who apparently have a hunger for 'dark meat' (shades of George Romero!), but otherwise are just as malnourished as the scrawny bunch in Carradine's version. The doctor plays ignorant throughout until the final reel, everything revealed in a ludicrous ceremony where the extras stomp like drunks killing roaches for the voodoo ceremony conducted by Madame Sul-Te-Wan (repeating her role two years later). Tedium reigns for the first half, as Summers refuses to believe anything Jeff tells him about the walking dead: "when a man's dead he's dead" "supposin' he's dead and don't know it?" Things perk up after that, with Moreland becoming a zombie under hypnosis and instantly taking charge of the troops: "move over boys, I'm one of the gang now!" One wishes that Lugosi had been able to play Sangre, finally getting his chance at RKO in the Wally Brown/Alan Carney comedy "Zombies on Broadway" in 1945. It's debatable as to whether or not it's actually better than "Revenge of the Zombies," but it's a certainty that the comic bits are brighter and the chemistry between Moreland and Marguerite Whitten make one wish they enjoyed more screen time together.
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Gorgo (1961)
5/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
4 April 2019
1960's "Gorgo" was yet another giant monster on the loose from director Eugene Lourie ("The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "The Colossus of New York," "The Giant Behemoth"), who only accepted on the condition that it emerge victorious (his daughter cried at the end of "Beast"). Much beloved by younger viewers, it tends to grate for adults due to the insipid child actor present as a major character, intrusive on the same level as the ones found in your average Gamera film (though not on screen as much, fortunately). The most notable cast member is William Sylvester, an American mainstay in British films of the 50s and 60s, from "Devil Doll," "Devils of Darkness," "Beast of Morocco," "You Only Live Twice," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the 1973 TV movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." Unlike his previous work, Lourie and the King brothers (distributors of Toho's "Rodan") decided on Eiji Tsuburaya's suitmation method, an elaborate dinosaur costume so heavy and cumbersome that four stuntmen were needed at various times to wear it. Touching on virtually every cliché invented by Lourie (as well as "King Kong"), "Gorgo" at least represents the best that can be done provided the budget allows for decent sequences of destruction (this time in color), and while there was talk of using Paris or Australia London became the obvious target (as it was in "The Giant Behemoth"). Volcanic activity near the Irish island of Nara uncovers a 65-foot reptile that causes a few deaths before the salvage team of Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) capture it and accept an offer from circus owner Dorkin (Martin Benson) to put it on exhibition. Trouble arises when scientists deduce that this gigantic creature is just a little baby, and before long Mother Gorgo follows her offspring's trail up through the Thames to find him. The characters are strictly cardboard, Travers comes dangerously close to becoming an outright villain, and even Martin Benson's entrepreneur has no such qualities. The Baby Gorgo rises at the 13 minute mark, the parent at 43 minutes, and despite the lengthy military setups the finale delivers in demolishing landmarks such as Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Circus, very effectively at night. Like Ishiro Honda's "Gojira," we see much of the human devastation, and one shocking bit shows teenagers watching the Thames flame out, only to be fried themselves in the process (eventually Japan's Nikkatsu studios borrowed the monster family outline for 1967's "Monster from a Prehistoric Planet"). A tremendous success for MGM though Eugene Lourie never directed again, returning to his longtime position as designer and art director, including television's KUNG FU.
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5/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The Angry Red Planet" introduced the science fiction team of Ib J. Melchior and Sidney W. Pink, who followed this AIP success (together or separately) with "Reptilicus," "Journey to the Seventh Planet," "Pyro," "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," "The Time Travelers," and Mario Bava's "Planet of the Vampires." Sid Pink conceived his outline "The Planet Mars" on his kitchen table, and teamed with Ib Melchior to write the screenplay for "Invasion of Mars/Mars Invasion," for a meager 9 days of shooting to commence Sept. 9, 1959, George Pal's "Destination Moon" the obvious model with its crew of only four. Intriguingly structured like a mystery, it opens with the return of rocket ship MR-1, believed lost for months on its mission to Mars but now proven to have survivors. Only half the crew are aboard however, the lone female Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden), and an unidentified male carrying an alien fungus about which nothing can be done without knowing what happened. The leader is Col. Tom O'Banion (Gerald Mohr), with the other two Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne) and comic relief Brooklynite Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), authorities probing Dr. Hayden's mind to learn the truth. The party spent four weeks in space before landing on the surface of Mars, venturing out at the 35 minute mark, where the film switches into Cinemagic, 'the effect of live actors being incorporated into animated scenes in a reverse negative effect,' which made the Red Planet stand out in comic book style colors (four separate printings using special optical equipment were required to produce the final result). This was the fanciful creation of Norman Maurer, son-in-law of Moe Howard from The Three Stooges, who used it just once more for 1962's "The Three Stooges in Orbit" (Moe played a small role in Maurer's previous sci/fi opus "Space Master X-7"). Their expectedly mundane exploration of the Martian surface is intended to last just five days, interrupted by encounters with a carnivorous plant, a gigantic spider-like creature with characteristics of a rat and bat with crab claws (mouth dripping in menacing fashion), and finally a single celled amoeba that rises from a lake and holds their ship in place keeping them prisoners on the angry red planet. The familiar voice of Pittsburgh's Ted Cassidy is the last we hear in the film, as Col. O'Banion is saved from his amoebic growth but listens intently to the Martian warning to keep their distance. Cinemagic (later ripped off as Spectrum-X by director Al Adamson for "Horror of the Blood Monsters") was merely an inexpensive ploy to cover the budgetary deficiencies of the various monsters (Pink initiated the 3-D craze in 1952 with Arch Oboler's "Bwana Devil"), but the gimmick proved a financial success at the box office and remains a fascinating watch today, the basic outline later adopted by the same filmmakers for "Journey to the Seventh Planet," substituting Uranus for Earth's neighbor Mars. Reunited from "The War of the Worlds" are Les Tremayne and Jack Kruschen, essentially playing the same roles, while Kruschen also enjoyed prior experience in "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars." Gerald Mohr ("My World Dies Screaming") makes for an unsympathetic lead, still not quite able to shake his villainous qualities despite three entries as The Lone Wolf in place of Warren William in the mid-1940s.
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7/10
Michael Gough in a shocking starring debut
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
1959's "Horrors of the Black Museum" marked producer Herman Cohen's shift from Hollywood to England, the very first AIP release in color and CinemaScope (double billed with Cohen's comedic "The Headless Ghost"), and its massive success was a major factor in the company's move away from black and white sci-fi to color Poe films. The William Castle-type gimmick of HypnoVista played a part at the box office but merely added 13 interminable minutes to the running time, usually trimmed for television (1960's "The Hypnotic Eye" called its similar process HypnoVision). It was the first of the infamous 'Sadean Trilogy' (followed by Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and Anton Diffring's "Circus of Horrors"), forward looking pictures that centered around the killers, all emphasizing sadism, depravity, and sexually charged violence against women (Anglo Amalgamated the production company doing the honors). It's no stretch to admit that this was the weakest of the three, Cohen's trademark misogyny firmly in place (with one exception, all the victims are female), and yet another teenage boy under the hypnotic control of a psychotic older male (the producer went back to the well one time too many with 1961's "Konga"). While "Peeping Tom" has long been acknowledged as an enduring classic, its shy protagonist unable to resist a compulsion to kill, and "Circus of Horrors" is acclaimed for the backdrop of joviality masking its sordid tale of an obsessive plastic surgeon using the big top as the perfect front for his facial experiments, "Black Museum" can offer little apart from the old hat Cohen clichés established in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," namely dull footage showing the hapless authorities always a step behind the culprit, this mastermind supplying Michael Gough with his first starring role, a more economical choice than either Vincent Price or Orson Welles. The gruesome opening is the best remembered moment, and no wonder; the tone is set with a pair of binoculars gifted to a young girl who tries them out immediately, only to fall victim to the hidden spikes that bore through her eyes into her brain. Nothing else tops that horrifying sequence but it doesn't have to, audiences for the first time asked to identify with the murderer as never before, and two decades before it truly came into its own with the spawn of "Friday the 13th." At the start of the decade Gothic efforts like "The Strange Door" were nostalgic, the focus on villain Charles Laughton balanced by the young ingenue in danger and a heroic figure to rescue her. There is virtually no opposition to Gough's Edmond Bancroft, veteran author of popular novels and articles on crime, his obsessive egomania such that his ultimate goal is to taunt authorities and look like a genius by orchestrating a series of murders perpetrated by his obedient teenage underling (Graham Curnow), under the effects of a Jekyll/Hyde serum that brings out the boy's horrific qualities. Bancroft purchases every antique weapon to be used, storing them in his secret Black Museum, one that parallels Scotland Yard's own museum, which is never open to the public. Gough's lip smacking relish is a far cry from his low key performance as Arthur Holmwood opposite Peter Cushing's Van Helsing in "Horror of Dracula" (all of his Cohen roles delivered this way), and quite unlike the tortured artist who haunts Christopher Lee's vengeful critic in "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors." Perhaps the actor had something of an imp inside that saw these horror outings as a way to just let 'er rip, implausible but never less than entertaining, just the right arrogant touch this one needed. Fortunately, the presence of future James Bond regular Geoffrey Keen lends some weight to the on screen investigation, a rarity for a Cohen film (the dependable Jack Watson is sadly lost at sea in the upcoming "Konga"). At the very beginning of a career that continued well into the 2000s, Shirley Anne Field can do little to make her character either likable or interesting, such is the way Herman Cohen depicted his female leads; she made a greater impact in "Peeping Tom" and particularly Hammer's "These Are the Damned" (this was the screen swan song for veteran director Arthur Crabtree, selected for his previous work on Marshall Thompson's "Fiend Without a Face"). Today we can hardly speculate on the impact it had on viewers accustomed to happy endings and evil vanquished, for as the 60s dawned Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" would become the benchmark for the future, as frightening and inevitable as death itself.
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4/10
Darlene Tompkins leaves one speechless
4 April 2019
"Beyond The Time Barrier" was the first of two features shot back to back by director Edgar G. Ulmer ("The Amazing Transparent Man" followed) in April-May 1959, at the Texas State fairgrounds at Fair Park in Dallas. Pacific International's presence meant that star Robert Clarke doubled as producer (having previously directed "The Hideous Sun Demon," the lead in Ulmer's 1951 "The Man from Planet X"), but collected only an actor's salary when the company went bankrupt after the pictures wrapped (more than a year passed before AIP picked them up for a nice profit). Scripting was Dallas native Arthur C. Pierce, author of "The Cosmic Man," "Invasion of the Animal People," "Women of the Prehistoric Planet," "Cyborg 2087," and "Dimension 5," all low budget wonders that have mostly achieved cult status. This low budget knockoff of "The Time Machine" (shooting title "The Last Barrier") was already in the can before George Pal began principal photography on his adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, and AIP made no secret of the connection with their final title, since both pictures were essentially released the same month. Clarke's test pilot takes off for a short flight 1000 miles above the earth but lands only a few hours later in a dilapidated area which used to be the air base. It's not long before he ventures near an underground city, whose inhabitants capture and decontaminate him, as the surface of this world is covered with mutants suffering the long term effects of radiation. It takes a long while before the pilot learns that he had unknowingly passed through a bridge in time and now resides in the year 2024, his new mission to return to his own period to try to prevent the fallout from a plague caused by cosmic bombardment that have rendered this earth sterile and doomed. The footage of imprisoned mutants was taken from an earlier Ulmer production, "Journey Beneath the Desert," but the rest was rather uninspired, though the attractive presence of newcomer Darlene Tompkins makes her mute role most welcome (Ulmer's daughter Arianne has a major part as a female scientist from the year 1973). Unlike earlier forays into the future such as "World Without End" we see few members of this society and virtually nothing to indicate its supposedly vast size, and only two have the power of speech, the sympathetic Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff) and hostile Captain (Red Morgan), who believes the incredulous pilot to be a spy. Clarke had endured a similar encounter in 1952's "Captive Women," and later entries like "The Time Travelers" and "Journey to the Center of Time" also used the same outline.
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Konga (1961)
4/10
Watchable only for Michael Gough
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
1961's Konga," along with "Horrors of the Black Museum," "Black Zoo," "Berserk," and "Trog" all cast Michael Gough in a leading role for producer Herman Cohen. The actor had debuted in films in 1947 (the same year as Christopher Lee) and had just enjoyed great prominence in costarring opposite Lee and Peter Cushing in Hammer's 1958 "Horror of Dracula," but Cohen's horror films were the first to offer him star billing (by the 1990s he became closely identified with the Batman movie quartet, playing Alfred the butler). A respected thespian and Tony Award winning actor in straight parts for seven decades, he earned a devoted cult following for his numerous genre efforts, deliciously slicing the ham on such occasions: "No Place Like Homicide," Hammer's 1962 "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors," "The Skull," "They Came from Beyond Space," "The Crimson Cult," "Crucible of Horror," "The Legend of Hell House," "Horror Hospital," "Satan's Slave," "The Boys from Brazil," "Venom," "The Serpent and the Rainbow," "Sleepy Hollow," and "Corpse Bride." If one goes into "Konga" expecting a Michael Gough cheese fest you won't be disappointed, but if you expect the King Kong-type thrills promised by another misleading AIP poster then the final result must rank as a bitter disappointment, the last straw for Cohen's days at American International. Going down the same road as before (shooting title "I Was a Teenage Gorilla"), Cohen cranks out his worst ever script, rehashing Gough's one dimensional villain from "Black Museum," now respected botanist Dr. Charles Decker, just returned from a year lost in the Ugandan jungle, where the native witch doctor showed him various flora and fauna that displayed elements combining plants and animals (too bad this comes to naught). Restored to his teaching post at Essex College, Decker's housekeeper Margaret (Margo Johns) proves unable to penetrate his icy demeanor, intent on proving his thesis that insectivorous plants can become carnivorous, their leaves then used to create a serum that induces hypnotic suggestion (scraping the bottom of the barrel for the sixth straight time). This occasion is only different in that a friendly chimp is the guinea pig, first doubling in size then on the second injection growing into a man sized gorilla wearing George Barrows' old suit from "Robot Monster." The replay continues as the college dean threatens Decker's job, a rival botanist (George Pastell) threatens his work, and a jealous student throttles him for spending too much time with his buxom girlfriend Sandra (Claire Gordon). Each of these outbursts is predictably followed by Teenage Konga offing the oppressors, the tedious police procedural thankfully held in check with sadly nothing else to support such a bare bones outline. Decker rants and raves while Margaret fusses, intact until the final reels when Cohen suddenly remembers there's supposed to be a giant ape. Margaret's jealousy over the doctor's lustful pursuit of oblivious Sandra forces her to give Konga one final injection, and lo and behold he lap dissolves several feet until he bursts through the ceiling. Margaret bites the dust, Sandra gets devoured by a (wo)man eating fly trap, and Decker gets scooped up in Konga's hairy paw for a perfunctory stroll through London for a rendezvous with bazookas at Big Ben (at least "Gorgo" did some actual damage). The plants look like shiny balloons, the climax utterly laughable, poor Konga just standing there as the military barrage actually does its job (they NEVER succeed in those Japanese Godzilla epics!). The acting is strictly amateur night, nothing for the cast to work with, and even at that a most forgettable bunch, including a very young Steven Berkoff ("Octopussy") as an unbilled student. Michael Gough is really the whole show, going over the top as never before, and with a nondescript director like John Lemont at the helm what else could be done? George Pastell did yeoman work for Hammer, sparring with Peter Cushing in "The Mummy," or playing the high priest in "The Stranglers of Bombay," even the train conductor in "From Russia with Love," in and out all too quickly in a nothing part (Jack Watson's police inspector left speechless for the final scene, just a raised eyebrow). Arthur Crabtree achieved effective results with much the same personnel on "Horrors of the Black Museum," a potent shocker and great moneymaker, but after this puerile pile of putrescence Cohen found himself back in Hollywood for the next Gough vehicle "Black Zoo" at Allied Artists, a moderate improvement, before moving on to higher profile titles featuring Sherlock Holmes ("A Study in Terror"), Joan Crawford ("Berserk," "Trog"), and Jack Palance ("Craze").
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The Hand (1960)
4/10
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
1960's "The Hand" was an hour long programmer from Butcher's Film Service in England distributed by AIP in the US, still to this day falsely advertised as a horror film and definitely lacking in thrills. The opening is at least arresting, the setting WW2 Burma (misidentifying the year as 1946), a Japanese commander seeking knowledge on the position of Allied forces, three captured soldiers refusing to offer anything more than name, rank, and serial number. One by one each prisoner is marched off to a separate interview, losing his right hand as punishment for holding out (the fate of the third is the only one left unseen). Fast forward to 1960 London, where elderly alcoholic Charlie Taplow (Harold Scott) is found with 500 quid in his pocket and his right hand crudely amputated, telling a wild story of sacrificing the five fingered appendage for ready cash. A constable on guard fails to prevent Taplow from being kidnapped, his corpse later found in the river, leading Scotland Yard Inspector Munyard (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) to the hospital where the sloppy surgery was conducted, the patient's name given as Roberts. The doctor turns out to be Simon Crawshaw (Garard Green), a nervous type who reveals only that he found the patient by the side of the road and assumed that he'd been in an accident, requiring the amputation of his right hand. No further information is forthcoming due to Crawshaw's self inflicted gunshot suicide, his cousin Roger (Derek Bond) discussing the requested loan of 500 quid that he had refused to grant because he wasn't told the reason for it. A mysterious phone call puts the Inspector on to another suspect, Michael Brodie (Reed De Rouen), who isn't very cooperative and seems to be missing his right hand. Once he too winds up dead another amputee enters the fray, George Adams (Bryan Coleman), happily married with young son, currently keeping his distance out in the country but soon to be the killer's next target. Since there were only three POWs held by the Japanese it's obvious that the guilty one has to be the third, and that unsurprisingly is Roger Crawshaw, whose real name is Roberts, but needed the old drunkard's hand to try to placate Brodie's understandable bitterness, his ultimate fate appropriate but quite unbelievable. Reviewers lament the picture's awkward structure (the WW2 flashback up front rather than saved for the conclusion), a mistake that had audiences a step ahead of Scotland Yard, for the so called mystery dissipates as the film moves along (even so, a large number of viewers remained confused by the overcomplicated plot). One can forgive the script's inadequacies knowing that it was only the first from actor Ray Cooney, doubling as the Inspector's right hand man, moving behind the camera after a decade in front of it, later specializing in comedy for both stage and screen (his next film was "No Place Like Homicide," an old dark house mix of chuckles and chills, starring Donald Pleasence and Michael Gough).
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